The "focus exhibit" is the curatorial equivalent of a film director's close-up shot. The Cleveland Museum of Art is currently doing some film directing of its own with an exhibit that takes a close look at one of its most important eighteenth-century paintings: an oil painting of a sleeping winged male figure by the French artist Jean-Bernard Restout. This exhibit, called A Painting in Focus, is the first in a projected series and is designed to make new research that enhances understanding of notable individual works in the museum's permanent collection, accessible to the public. True to its design, the exhibit forgoes the panoramic vista of the forest in order to hone in on one particular tree. The question, of course, is whether all that sustained scrutiny is worth the effort.
A focus exhibit that provides viewers with new and necessary information on a significant work--and does so without resorting to intellectual body-slams or irritating lord-of-the-manor generalities--is well on its way to success. If, however, such an exhibition has recourse to the methods of the WWF or to those of certain members of Parliament, it becomes a dramatic extravagance; a case of emphasis without impact.
Fortunately, CMA's focus exhibit on Restout, the logical outgrowth of scholarship by Assistant Curator Carter E. Foster, is interesting and relevant. The exhibition, which places the 1771 painting "Sleep" in historical context by supplementing it with twenty displayed works from around the same period, provides an important gloss on eighteenth-century French artistic practices. And it deftly makes the larger point that gifted painters working out of the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in Paris could create art of enduring value, though they had no interest in turning tradition on its head. For these artists, self-imposed limitations were not obstacles to be overcome, but boundaries within which they could refine their craft.
Restout's "Sleep" was purchased by the museum in 1963. Although it was originally thought to have been executed by his more famous contemporary Jean Honore Fragonard, the work's troubled provenance is not the point of this exhibit.
Instead, in a catalog essay that supplements the show, Foster focuses on both elements suggested by the painting's title (which may or may not have been original with Restout). This approach highlights the idea that, although Restout's subject is the god of sleep, the mythological subject matter was undergirded by an all-consuming mission to accurately render the nude human form.
This preoccupation with capturing every muscle, every tendon, every rib exactly was the legacy of Restout's training in the highly disciplined environment of the Royal Academy. Such strict training is evident in the almost sculptural solidity of the nude and the almost clinical attention paid to certain underlying forms. Passages in "Sleep," such as a minutely rendered rib cage, bespeak an artist whose interest in anatomical detail was equaled only by his interest in mythology.
Getting the human body right was, in fact, merely the first step for artists moving in Academy circles. If they had any intention of showing their work at one of the prestigious salon exhibitions, artists had to place their correctly rendered nudes in a narrative context. Restout's precision, in other words, had to represent something--the visualization of a historical or mythological theme. Precisely articulated musculature counted for little in the salon unless it was placed in the service of a higher goal. This exhibit includes several examples of drawings and sketches that might have influenced Restout. But these seem concerned with the male nude as a subject in and of itself, and thus lack the essential narrative ingredient which was to propel "Sleep" beyond the status of academic exercise and into the realm of philosophically charged narrative.
The male nude was the departing point for many such narratives. Eighteenth-century French society idolized feminine beauty, of which works by Fragonard and François Boucher (not included in this exhibit) are illustrative. Nevertheless, the male nude continued to play an important role in the Academy during this period, and Foster reminds us that Restout--as well as other artists, like Fragonard and Boucher--would have been expected to produce studies of the male nude during their training.
If Restout's work is not unusual in its choice of the male nude, it is unusual in its choice of mythological subject. The god of sleep was not often chosen in French art at the time, though Ovid's Metamorphoses, Restout's probable literary source, was popular. The Latin poet described the god as living in a cave where poppies grow. This is how Restout depicts him--in his cave, asleep, with wings, and surrounded by poppies. His face reddish and his cheeks pronouncedly ruddy, he looks like he might be sleeping off the effects of a few too many goblets of the grape.
The Enlightenment was characterized in part by a wave of interest in precisely cataloguing observable phenomena--and this drive toward clarity was, not surprisingly, echoed in its art. The crimson face and the ruddy cheeks reflect this preoccupation. Foster takes the point of precise observation a step further as he emphasizes the rich interplay that existed at the Academy between antique models as disseminated through prints and busts, live nude models, and instructional works executed by professors based on live nude models.
Students at the Academy were influenced by all of these sources, and Foster argues that works like Restout's "Sleep" show how this dynamic worked. To support this argument, Foster builds up an evidentiary chain consisting of contemporaneous works that may have influenced Restout, and in his essay he also cites antique models with which the artist was sure to have been familiar.
This aspect of the exhibit is like following clues in a complicated mystery: There are many of them and, despite the informative wall texts, the viewer must ultimately fill in the blanks and decide what Restout saw, when he saw it, and what he took away from it. Is the unsung French painter unmasked by this compelling display of historical reconstruction? Or does he step forward on his own and admit that--though he received good training at the Academy--he was fed up with all the niggling little complaints by all those Academy professors who insisted that ribs were micromillimeters too pronounced, and took his revenge on the art world by making it nearly impossible for them to determine what he painted and when? Interesting questions, and all are accessible to scholar and non-scholar alike.
Restout, it seems, did not appreciate what he came to believe was the Academy's authoritarian stance toward the arts. But if he had a rebellious streak, as the wall texts infer, this exhibit doesn't support the notion. Rather, it suggests that Restout worked within the system and got superb results because he knew how to combine well-wrought depictions of the nude human form with historical and mythological subject matter. He could put his own twist on things by choosing a relatively rare subject like the god of sleep, and showing his hand in details such as the reddish spent-satyr face. But works like "Sleep" also showed a devotion to craft and an attention to detail that embodied what was best about the Royal Academy.
Focus exhibits like this one implicitly seek to reverse a prevailing opinion or to promote intelligent discussion about little-known artistic byways. Such is the case here. An artist like Restout, who is little-known and yet whose work, properly showcased, can also lead to new insights about eighteenth-century French artistic life, deserves the attention paid him. This exhibit is a piece of skilled advocacy for a neglected artist and a fine beginning to the museum's series focusxng on outstanding works in its permanent collection.
A Painting in Focus, through May 23 at the Cleveland Museum of Art, 11150 East Boulevard, 216-421-7340.
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